Christine Cavanaugh: 1963 – 2014

Actress Christine Cavanaugh passed away on December 22, 2014 at the much too young age of 51.  Cavanaugh’s career as an actress spanned from 1988 to 2001.  She appeared in a handful of live television shows & movies during this time.  The majority of her work, however, was as a voice actress.  In this capacity, Cavanaugh gave a number of wonderful performances over the years, portraying several famous characters.

Christine Cavanaugh

Her most prominent performance was probably in the 1995 movie Babe.  She voiced the title character, the sweet and innocent Australian piglet Babe who becomes a sheep-herder.

Cavanaugh worked on a number of animated series throughout the 1990s, among the Darkwing Duck, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Powerpuff Girls and The Wild Thornberries.  Her two most significant roles were on Rugrats and Dexter’s Laboratory.

I always found Rugrats to be a bizarre but funny show.  It is one of those series that was very much for all ages.  Young kids enjoyed it for the cute & goofy humor, while adults appreciated it for the comically skewed perceptions of the world as seen through the toddler characters’ eyes.

Cavanaugh was the voice of Chuckie Finster, the nervous orange-haired two-year-old with glasses.  Her delivery of Chuckie’s dialogue was both poignant and humorous.  Chuckie always reminded me a bit of myself, so he was something of a favorite character.  Cavanaugh portrayed Chuckie on the Rugrats television series from 1991 to 2001, as well as in the two animated films The Rugrats Movie (1998) and Rugrats in Paris (2000), the latter of which featured a central role for the character.

Rugrats Chuckie Finster

The other animated voice role for which Cavanaugh was known was Dexter, the main character from Genndy Tartakovsky’s series Dexter’s Laboratory.  Cavanaugh voiced the diminutive boy genius from 1995 to 2001, bringing to life the character with an iconic performance. She gifted Dexter with humorous self-involvement, as well as an almost tangible frustration at having to co-exist with his annoying older sister Dee Dee, who kept invading his secret lab, mucking about with his ambitious experiments.  I’ve always enjoyed Dexter’s Laboratory.  It was another offbeat but humorous series that appealed to viewers of all ages.

Cauvanaugh’s vocals as Dexter were also featured on the 1998 soundtrack album Dexter’s Laboratory: The Musical Time Machine which compiled several songs from the series.  Among these was “Breathe in the Good Sunshine” from the episode “Just an Old-Fashioned Lab Song,” with Cavanaugh performing alongside singer-songwriter Paul Williams.

Dexter's Laboratory The Musical Time Machine

Cavanaugh retired from acting in 2001.  She moved back to her native Utah in order to spend more time with her family.

Until I read about Cavanaugh passing away late last month, I had not actually realized who she was, and the same actress had voiced Babe, Chuckie and Dexter.  Voice acting is often low-profile work, and is really not appreciated anywhere near as much as acting in front of the camera.  But it definitely requires real talent.  Bereft of the use of facial expressions and body language, the actor must rely solely on their voice to bring a character to life, to convey emotion, to deliver performances that must be humorous and dramatic, broad and subtle.

Christine Cavanaugh was certainly capable of all that.  She brought to life a trio of iconic fictional characters with her wonderful abilities, delighting millions of fans, young and old.

The Young Ones: a bunch of complete bastards

After hearing of the recent untimely death of British comedian Rik Mayall last month at the age of 56, Michele and I re-watched the television series that he was most associated with: The Young Ones.  Originally running for two six-episode seasons in 1982 and 1984 on the BBC, The Young Ones became an influential cult classic.  Michele likes to say that it is her all time favorite television series.  She first saw it when it aired here in the States in 1985 on MTV.  Myself, I caught a few of the episodes in the mid-1990s when it was on Comedy Central.  While I enjoyed them somewhat back then, watching the series in its entirety on DVD definitely gave me a real appreciation for it.

The Young Ones DVD

The Young Ones was co-written by Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer, with additional material by Alexi Sayle.  It featured the bizarre, nonsensical, and grotesquely over-the-top misadventures of four university students from Scumbag College who were rooming together in North London:

Rick (played by Rik Mayall) was a would-be anarchist revolutionary who would go on endlessly about the evils of Margaret Thatcher and the oppression of the people, while treating everyone else about him with disdain.  He regarded himself as “the people’s poet,” the so-called “voice of a generation,” although in reality he was a self-important egotist who was full of crap.

Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson) was a loud, psychotic, alcoholic punk metal-head who considered Rick “a complete bastard.”  Despite being an ultra-violent imbecile, Vyvyan was studying medicine at Scumbag College.  I suppose the blood & guts appealed to him.

Neil (Nigel Planer) was a perpetually depressed hippy pacifist who had constant verbal & physical abuse heaped upon him, and who was always expected by the other three to cook dinner, even if they were too broke to buy groceries.  Neil alternated between preaching the virtues of such causes as vegetarianism & environmentalism, and moping about bemoaning the fact that everyone hated him.

Mike (Christopher Ryan) was a suave con artist who was always scheming to make money.  On several occasions referring to himself as “the cool person,” Mike believed he was a real ladies’ man, although on various instances he was spotted sleeping with an inflatable sex doll.

Rounding out the regular cast was Alexi Sayle, who portrayed a variety of characters, including the various members of the Balowski Family.  Sayle’s performances were often a satire on British societal stereotypes, with him sending up the popular image of the working class, or merely rambling on in a stream of consciousness manner, via some cleverly nonsensical monologues.

The Young Ones

There were appearances on The Young Ones by a number of talented actors and comedians.  Some of them were already established at that time, and others were up-and-coming.  Among the various guest stars to appear on the show were Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Frost, Terry Jones, Patrick Newell, Helen Lederer, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson.

Each of the episodes featured a musical performance, which was always worked into the plot somehow or another, even it was just that week’s band just standing around the living room or out in the street while the action unfolded about them.  Some of the musical guests were definitely on the obscure side, such as Amazulu and Rip Rig + Panic.  Others were better known, as in Motorhead, The Damned, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Madness (who appeared twice).  There was one episode, “Flood,” that instead of music had a lion tamer performing in Mike’s room, and that incongruous appearance ended up being a key aspect to the resolution of the plot, such as it was.

Of course, that was the thing about The Young Ones.  The episodes did not have much in the way of straightforward plots, but were rather more like a series of jokes and gags that were somewhat loosely strung together.  There were also a number of random asides tossed in that had little or nothing to do with the rest of the episode.

The humor ranged from sophisticated and intellectual to crass, vulgar, gross, tacky and utterly lowbrow.  Copious amounts of cartoonish violence were regularly inflicted upon the characters.  The Young Ones was the sort of anarchic mish-mash of comedic insanity that could have easily collapsed into an incomprehensible, unfunny heap.  But the talent, energy, and enthusiasm of the performers and writers instead resulted in a set of a dozen episodes which were hysterical and laugh-out-loud funny.

The series often broke the fourth wall, with characters directly addressing the audience to deliver jokes or monologues.  The most extended example of this was in the episode “Sick.”  Halfway through the episode the quartet are alarmed to learn that Neil’s parents will be coming to visit, and they desperately start attempting to clean up the house, hoping to look at least somewhat more respectable.  The audience’s expectation is that Neil’s middle class parents are going to be upset that he is living with a trio of disreputable individuals in a shithole of a building.  Instead, we quickly find out that they are furious Neil is starring in such a shameful, trashy television show as The Young Ones, with his father critically commenting “It’s a waste of a licensing fee! Pardon my French, but why can’t you be in one of those decent situation comedies that your mother likes?”

Re-watching The Young Ones, Michele began to suspect that it could have been a major influence on Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy.  She has a good point there, and I would not be surprised to learn that she’s correct.

The Young Ones Vyvyan

Our favorite episode of The Young Ones is undoubtedly “Bambi.”  I really enjoyed that one even back when I first saw it in the mid-90s.  Seeing it again on DVD, it was hilarious.  The housemates attempt to wash their laundry for the first time in over three years, leading to the anthropomorphic machine at the launderette to violently spit out the load, loudly proclaiming “No way!”  Vyvyan then utters one of my favorite lines of dialogue from the series: “This calls for a very special blend of psychology and extreme violence.”  Fooling a lecherous washing machine into thinking they have actress Felicity Kendall’s underwear, the four of them stuff their clothes into it, only to belatedly realize that they don’t have any money to put into it.  Returning home, they vow to never wash their clothes again and become the dirtiest students in the whole world.  When Mike comments “Hey, now there’s a challenge,” Neil suddenly remembers that the four of them have been selected to represent Scumbag College on the television game show University Challenge.  Cue a mad dash to the railway station, with Motorhead providing incidental music.  I won’t say any more about the episode.  Trust me, if you haven’t seen the it, it’s well worth watching.

It might seem odd, at least to an American audience, that The Young Ones was so influential while only lasting a mere 12 episodes.  But actually I think the British method of producing television, with shorter seasons, is a good one.  I really think that too many American shows stretch their resources thin making 24 episodes a year.  The end result is that you usually end up with several really good installments, a number of merely average ones, and at least a few stinkers.  But if you have half that number, or less, the writers can really focus their energy on crafting several high-quality scripts, the various members of the production team can better allocate their time & resources into filming them, and the actors aren’t overworked.  Looking at the run of The Young Ones, not a single one of the episodes is a dud.

The Young Ones Rick

It certainly is a shame that co-star and co-writer Rik Mayall died so young.  Michelle posted a nice tribute to Mayall on her own blog.  Looking at his work on The Young Ones, as well as other projects he was involved with over the years, it is apparent that he was extremely talented.  Mayall had a genuine gift for comedy, delivering lines in just the right way, offering up the most insane facial expressions, and excelling in dynamically bizarre physical comedy.  Yeah, I would go so far as to say that he was a genius.

If you aren’t familiar with The Young Ones, check it out.  There are plenty of clips from the series posted on the internet, as well as the actors’ appearances in the 1980s reprising their roles elsewhere.  For all twelve episodes, plus some informative extras, The Young Ones: Extra Stoopid Edition DVD set came out in 2007 and is still available.

Thoughts on Criminal Minds season eight part two

The second half of Criminal Minds season eight wrapped up a few weeks ago, and it was definitely one hell of a ride.  The various subplots set up in early episodes all came to a head, beginning in the mid-season opener “Zugzwang.”  Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) had, over a period of months, been developing a relationship over the phone with Maeve (Beth Riesgraf), a geneticist who was in seclusion due to her being menaced by a stalker.  Just when it seemed that Maeve was in the clear, and she could finally meet Reid, the stalker finally surfaces in the persona of a very loony Michelle Trachtenberg.  Maeve is kidnapped, and is soon the tragic victim of a murder/suicide, killed right in front of a horrified Reid.  As a viewer, it was a real kick in the gut.  The socially awkward BAU agent finally found his soul mate only to have her cruelly taken away like that.  Maeve’s death would continue to haunt Reid for the remainder of the season.

Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) also went through the emotional wringer, as his past came back to haunt him.  In the episode “Restoration,” the BAU is investigating a series of brutal beatings in Chicago, and they soon realize that the UnSub is a past victim of Carl Buford, a sexual predator who molested dozens of teenage boys, including a young Morgan.  The BAU is forced to turn to the imprisoned Buford to get his help in narrowing down the suspect list, bringing Morgan face to face with his childhood tormentor.  That’s the interesting thing about Morgan.  On the surface, he appears to be this confident, happy, handsome guy who has it all.  But underneath all that there is this painful past which has led him to join the FBI in order to aid other people who have been victimized.

Spencer Reid and Derek Morgan both went through an emotional gauntlet in Criminal Minds season eight.
Spencer Reid and Derek Morgan both went through an emotional gauntlet in Criminal Minds season eight

Another member of the BAU with layers is Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (A.J. Cook), the BAU’s former communications liaison turned profiler.  JJ often comes across as having a very laid-back, casual demeanor.  But she is also a mother to a young son, Henry, a role equally important to her.  In the previous season, we saw hell hath no fury like a mother scorned, as she engaged in a vicious hand to hand fight with Tricia Helfer’s serial killer bank robber in order to keep Henry safe.  This season, another case hit home for JJ’s maternal instincts.  In “Nanny Dearest,” we learn that the BAU has been attempting to solve a case for several years.  Each year, a nanny and the child in her care are abducted by an UnSub.  The child is typically returned unharmed within 24 hours, but inevitably the tortured & drowned body of the nanny is found disposed of in Los Angeles on the exact same day of the year.  Hoping to prevent a new killing, the BAU fly out to LA, only to learn the latest abduction has occurred ahead of schedule, except this time the child has yet to be recovered.  JJ is reminded of her son, who due to the work schedule of herself and her husband, is often left with a nanny.  Following a number of leads, JJ and Morgan finally locate the UnSub, and a determined JJ kills the murderer in a tense shoot-out.

By far the biggest plotline of Season Eight was the emergence of the Replicator.  In the first half of the season, the BAU was being stalked by a mysterious figure, an individual who then began committing copycat killings of various cases the team had recently solved.  As the second half of the season progresses, the Replicator steps up his game, actively taunting the members of the BAU, as well as manipulating another individual into carrying out some of the killings.

As I mentioned in my write-up of the first half of the season, I was wondering if there might be some connection between the Replicator and A) the person stalking Maeve or B) the fumbled FBI investigation that nearly ended the career of Alex Blake (Jeanne Tripplehorn) twelve years ago.  Well, I was wrong about the first connection, although the Replicator did take advantage of Maeve’s abduction to offer his first taunt of “Zugzwang” to Reid.  However, I was totally on target on the second point.

After nearly a year of build-up, I was hoping that the reveal of the Replicator wouldn’t be a let-down.  Criminal Minds definitely came up with pitch-perfect casting, as the BAU’s arch-foe is revealed to be portrayed by none other than Mark Hamill.  And if you thought he was creepy as the voice of the Joker on Batman: the Animated Series, here as the Replicator he is downright scary.

The Replicator revealed: Mark Hamill as FBI agent turned serial killer John Curtis
The Replicator revealed: Mark Hamill as FBI agent
turned serial killer John Curtis

Who is the Replicator?  He is FBI agent John Curtis, and a dozen years previously his career suffered a major setback as, along with Alex Blake, the blame for a botched investigation into a series of anthrax attacks was shifted onto him by Assistant Director Erin Strauss (Jayne Atkinson).  Curtis blamed Strauss for delivering this near fatal blow to his career, he was jealous of Blake for rebuilding her position in the FBI when he was unable to do so, and he resented the BAU for offering Blake a place on their team, something he felt he deserved much more than her.  All that set off his obsessive stalking of the BAU, and the replication of their cases, with the end goal of first humiliating and then killing them.

The character who Curtis directs much of his ire towards, Erin Strauss, is an interesting one.  Early on, Strauss was an ambitious, ruthless figure who often maintained an adversarial attitude towards the BAU.  As the series progressed, Strauss gradually mellowed, becoming more of an ally.  When it became apparent that Strauss was suffering from alcoholism, the members of the BAU helped her to both enter recovery and to save her career.  So the Strauss who the Replicator confronts is a very different woman from the person who threw Curtis and Blake to the wolves back in 2001.

Unfortunately, the vengeful Curtis takes Strauss prisoner and forces her at gunpoint to drink, destroying her hard-won sobriety.  Having taken her dignity, the Replicator then murders Strauss.  Hardest hit by this is David Rossi (Joe Mantegna).  Over the past year or so, there had been a number of hints that Rossi and Strauss had become involved, and it is confirmed here, as Rossi mourns and rages at the death of a woman he has come to care for.

The final episode of Season Eight really was riveting.  As events hurtled towards the confrontation between the BAU and the Replicator, I was wondering if the finale would actually end in a cliffhanger.  I also was seriously worried just how the BAU was going to outwit the Replicator, who all along was shown to be several steps of them.  I was a bit worried that there’d be some sort of cop-out, that he would conveniently make some sort of silly mistake at the last minute.  Fortunately that is not the case.

The Replicator very nearly does succeed in trapping most of the team in a room with a bomb rapidly counting down to zero.  However, he does make two slight miscalculations.  Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangness) manages to reboot her crashed computer network quicker than anticipated, enabling her to jam the countdown.  Rossi, who was earlier poisoned by the Replicator, also recovers sooner than expected, and the delay caused by Garcia gives him time to get the rest of the BAU out of the locked room.  A fleeing Curtis leads a pursuing Rossi back into the booby-trapped room, determined to take at least one of the BAU out with him.  In an act of poetic justice, though, Rossi has used Strauss’ one year anniversary coin from Alcoholics Anonymous to wedge open the lock.  Rossi makes his exit, leaving the Replicator to be blown up… probably.  Because, y’know, we do not actually see a body.

With the Replicator presumed dead, the members of the BAU gather at Rossi’s house to hold an informal memorial service, remembering the fallen Strauss, who in the end they counted as a loyal friend and colleague.

I thought the second half of season eight was quite good.  Despite the fact that the Replicator storyline was a major feature of the season, it did not dominate events, and we did get plenty of stand-alone episodes.  The mystery was resolved quite satisfactorily.  And I’m actually glad that Jeanne Tripplehorn will be returning in season nine.  At first, I wasn’t sure about Alex Blake, but in the end I warmed up to her character.

You are watching Me TV

The last couple of months, Michele and I have been watching a lot of television.  It seems like we’re paying a small fortune to Time Warner for cable, so we figure we might as well take advantage of that, instead of buying even more DVDs.  Out of what we’ve been watching, a pretty good portion of the viewing material has been reruns on the cable channel Me TV, aka Memorable Entertainment Television.

This whole thing started in late December of last year.  Actor Jack Klugman had just passed away, and there was a 24 hour marathon of The Odd Couple on some channel or another.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, The Odd Couple is based on a play by Neil Simon.  The premise of the series is that neat, fussy photographer Felix Unger, played by Tony Randall, is kicked out by his wife, who has finally gotten completely fed up of his anal retentive behaviors.  He moves in with his old friend Oscar Madison, played by Klugman, a sloppy, grumpy newspaper sports writer who several years before was divorced by his own wife.  The opening narration asks “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”  And the answer to that is usually a resounding “NO!”  Felix and Oscar are complete polar opposites, and the comedy of the show derives from how the two of them react in completely different ways when they get thrust into a variety of bizarre and oddball situations.  Most of the time Oscar is convinced that nosy, neat freak Felix is ruining his life, and badly wants him out of the apartment.  But underneath his grumpy exterior, Oscar is a decent guy, and inevitably he ends up letting Felix stay because he can’t bear to see his pal get cast out, no matter how much they aggrivate each other.

Odd Couple
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman on The Odd Couple

Anyway, after watching a few hours of this marathon of The Odd Couple around the holidays, Michele, who used to watch it when she was growing up, became totally hooked on it again.  She had me do a search on the DVR to see if any channels were repeating it.  That’s how we found Me TV, which airs it every weekday night at 10:00 PM.  So now it’s set to record every episode.  And, yeah, after watching it for a week or so, I ended up becoming a fan, as well.

We soon discovered that there is a lot of other cool stuff on Me TV.  There is Dick Van Dyke and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  I used to watch both of those in high school when they were rerun on Nick at Nite.  There’s “Sunday Night Noir” with shows like The Fuguitive.   I’ve also taped a couple of episodes of Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea on the DVR, but I haven’t had a chance to actually view them yet.

For fans of more spooky fare, there are Rod Serling’s two famous anthology series, The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.  Obviously I’ve seen endless reruns of The Twilight Zone in syndication.  But Night Gallery pops up much less often on television, so even though it wasn’t nearly as good as its predecessor, I’m enjoying being able to see many of the shows for the first time.  Serling was certainly a brilliant writer, and he did such an amazing job of seamlessly working social commentary into sci-fi and horror material.

Rod Serling Night Gallery
Rod Serling hosting Night Gallery

Michele and I were reflecting that some of the best material we’re currently watching on television originally aired decades ago.  I’m not going to go so far as to say that everything that’s on the networks nowadays is crap.  And certainly there was plenty of awful stuff on in the 1960s and 70s.  But I really do have to wonder how many shows that are currently on the main channels will be considered classics thirty or forty years from now.

A Super Bowl 2013 blog from a guy who doesn’t watch football

I’ve never seen the Super Bowl as a big deal, mostly because I’m not all that into football to begin with.  I think most of the blame for that lies in the fact that, no matter how many times people have explained it, I’ve never been able to figure out how the game is played.  Something about each team having a certain number of attempts to advance the ball across the field a certain number of yards, and at the end they need to score a touchdown, or at least a field goal.  Is that right?  I dunno.

I was going to just sit Super Bowl XLVII out this year.  But a cool local bar here in Queens, Gottscheer Hall, was having their regular Super Bowl party, complete with free buffet.  So Michele and I decided to go to that.

But first on Sunday afternoon, we sat down to watch the two hour Puppy Bowl IX on Animal Planet.  That’s the cute parody of the game which sees a bunch of puppies bouncing around a miniature football stadium, playing with each other and squeaky toys.  They even have a halftime show with cute, cuddly kittens.  It is, as you can imagine, absolutely adorable.  It’s also in a good cause, because all of the dogs and cats who appear on the show each year are rescued from animal shelters.  After the filming is done, they are all adopted out to people who want pets.  Apparently the show also helps raise awareness in animal adoptions, because there is a spike in rescues afterwards each year as viewers take in cats & dogs from their local shelters.

Puppy Bowl IX

By the time we arrived at Gottscheer Hall, the second quarter of the Super Bowl was already well underway.  Which meant, oh joy, we were in plenty of time to catch the halftime show with Beyonce.  I’ve never been a fan of her, to say the least, so this gave me ample opportunity to rag out on her, much to Michele’s amusement.  Look, if you can’t be bothered to sing live for the freaking President of the United States, who will you perform for?  Just as she was lip synching at Barack Obama’s inauguration, so too I expect she was doing much the same for her Super Bowl “performance.”

By the time the third quarter started up, the Ravens were well ahead, and it looked like the 49ers were going to get creamed, especially after Jacoby Jones scored a 108-yard touchdown.  Heck, I don’t even follow football, and even I was impressed by that.  Anyway, I wasn’t rooting for either team, but it’s just a much more interesting game to watch when the score is closer.  Baltimore was ahead 28 to 6 just a few minutes into the second half when, whoops, there was a power outage at the stadium.  It lasted over half an hour, and by the time all the lights were back up, it appeared that the Ravens had totally lost their momentum.  Next thing you know, the score was 34 to 29, with Baltimore barely clinging on to a slim lead in the fourth quarter.  It actually made for a riveting final few moments, because it looked like at any minute San Francisco was going to take the lead.  But the Ravens pulled through.  All in all, it was a pretty entertaining game, even for a football-illiterate viewer such as myself.

Oh, yes, then there were the commercials.  What can I say about them?  I know: they sucked!  Yipes, what an awful collection of garbage.  Companies actually paid millions of dollars to air this crap.  And did I actually see a commercial being broadcast for the Church of Scientology?  What’s next, the Vatican buying air time during the MLB playoffs?  What a world.

Oh, well, come hell or high water, hopefully next year we’ll have Puppy Bowl once again.

Thoughts on Criminal Minds season eight part one

Over the last week or so, I’ve been watching all the Criminal Minds season eight episodes that I had saved on the DVR. I think there must have been at least five of them. I’m finally caught up with all the episodes that aired in 2012, ending with “Perennials,” after which came the mid-season break.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that the series is perhaps beginning to show its age, in that the writers are presenting even more bizarre & twisted cases for the Behavioral Analysis Unit to solve. It seems like the creators are upping the ante to try and top what they’ve done in the previous seven years. This season, for instance, we’ve seen a doctor who is kidnapping victims in order to conduct limb transplants, a hypochondriac cannibal single mother who grinds her victims into fertilizer, a pair of antisocial brothers who hijack a school bus and force the students to re-enact an ultra-violent video game, a man who believes he is the reincarnation of a slain serial killer, and a puppeteer who turns his victims into human marionettes.

That last unsub is portrayed by the underrated Brad Dourif, who excels at playing bug-eyed crazy loons. I’m genuinely surprised that it took eight years for him to appear on the series! At least when he finally showed up, it was in a role that really suited his abilities, bat$#!+ insane yet at the same time pathetically tragic.

I think one of the things that keeps Criminal Minds from descending into ultra-violent camp is that, despite the almost ridiculous nature of some of the cases, the writing treats everything with dead seriousness. At the same time, the scripts continue to feature excellent material for the main characters. On one case, David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) encounters his former Marine Corps sergeant from Vietnam who is now alcoholic & homeless. The two have a troubled, but ultimately rewarding, reunion. In the process we get to see some of what shaped Rossi into the man he is today.

The biggest change to the series is the introduction of Jeanne Tripplehorn as Alex Blake, the newest member of the BAU. In her first episode, there is an allusion to an FBI investigation that Blake was involved in which ended badly, and that she was forced to fall on her sword to save others’ heads from rolling. As a result, it’s taken her years to rebuild her career, and her assignment to the BAU is finally a major step in that direction. I would not be surprised if this was followed up on at a later date.

Jeanne Tripplehorn as Alex Blake on Criminal Minds
Jeanne Tripplehorn as Alex Blake on Criminal Minds

We’ve also seen the “will they or won’t they” question hanging in the air for a reconciliation between Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) and Kevin Lynch (Nicholas Brendon). Last season, Kevin asked Penelope to marry her, but she was unable to make that sort of permanent commitment. So instead they ended up breaking up. But as we see in this season, the two are still attracted to each other, despite their attempts to move on. I hope Kevin sticks around, if only because I’ve been a fan of Brendon since his days playing Xandar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Besides, Penelope and Kevin make a cute couple.

There have been two major mysteries that have been slowly building up in the first half of season eight. The first is that an unseen individual has been stalking the members of the BAU, covertly photographing them, and amassing details of their cases. This figure has now graduated to replicating crimes that the BAU has recently solved. As “Perennials” comes to an end, the team begins to realize that they have a serial copycat on their hands.

The second puzzle involves Spencer Reid, played by Matthew Gray Gubler. Reid has been “seeing” a therapist via phone for several months, and over the course of their lengthy conversations, he has gradually developed an attraction for this woman. Reid wants to meet her, but she is afraid to go out in public because she is being stalked.

Presumably both of these subplots will be addressed when Criminal Minds returns later this month. I find myself pondering whether or not it’s possible that the two are connected. It seems a bit convenient that the BAU team is being tracked right at the exact same time that the psychotherapist treating one of its members is also being stalked. I suppose it could be a coincidence. After all, as this show likes to remind us, there are a hell of a lot of crazy people out there! That said, I’m also wondering if the past investigation that nearly ended Alex Blake’s career might also tie in with all of this. If I have a suspicious mind, perhaps it’s because I’ve been watching this series for too long.

Despite some outlandish premises to several of the cases, on the whole the first half of Criminal Minds season eight has been quite good. Let’s see what’s next.

Holiday daze

So, another year comes to an end.  I would be lying if I didn’t say I would be happy to see 2012 pass by.  The past twelve months have had so many personal highs and lows, a total rollercoaster.  I’m looking forward to 2013.  Hopefully it’ll be a better year, and I’ll be a better person, as well.

In any case, the last week has been pretty good.  Michele and I invited her parents over for dinner on Christmas Eve.  Michele is one hell of a cook.  This year she made a turkey, stuffing, homemade mashed potatoes, and several vegetables.  It was a really good meal.  The cats went totally crazy, of course!  Squeaky and Nettie love their turkey.  Squeaky even ended up jumping on the kitchen counter in an attempt to get at the turkey before Michele had even had the opportunity to cook it yet!  Anyway, there were plenty of leftovers, so the cats had a chance to gobble down plenty of turkey.  We also gave a few pieces to the turtle.  Yes, Meeshee Gamera refuses to eat vegetables, but she loves poultry.  We gave some food to Michele’s parents to take home.  From what Michele tells me, when they got home, Little Ginger the kitten went nuts when they fed her some turkey.

Michele's delicious turkey
Michele’s delicious turkey

Finally, a few days later, there was only a little bit left.  After I threw out the carcass, I made the mistake of leaving the remaining turkey on a plate by the stove, planning to give it to the turtle the next day.  Well, when I woke up the next morning, it was all gone, except for the wish bone.  Michele and I were looking at each other, puzzled.  “Did you eat it?”  “No, I didn’t, did you eat it?”  Finally it dawned on us that in the middle of the night one of the cats must have jumped up and taken it!

Between the cold weather and the turkey rendering us semi-comatose, we ended up watching a lot of television.  When Michele’s parents came over for dinner, I turned on Animal Planet for the Too Cute marathon.  That show features oodles and oodles of kittens and puppies.  I think I overdosed on adorable.  Then Michele put the Laurel and Hardy film Babes in Toyland aka March of the Wooden Soldiers on the DVD player.

Christmas morning was pretty much dominated by our yearly tradition of watching the 24 hour marathon of A Christmas Story on TBS.  Somehow, we never end up viewing the movie from beginning to end.  Instead, we catch 15 minutes here, a half hour there, and by the end of the day, when you add up all the bits & pieces, we’ve seen the entire movie at least once.  That really is a hysterical film.  As with so many other great cult classics, it apparently did poorly in the theaters, only to find new life on home video and television.

Other viewing material that day was the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode of Santa Claus, a truly bizarre 1959 Mexican movie which features the war between St. Nick and the Devil.  Yes, really!  It is a strange, strange film.  To quote Mike & the Bots, “This is good old fashioned nightmare fuel!”  Then it was time for this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special.  It was pretty good, albeit uneven.  I may review “The Snowmen” on this blog in the near future.

Another show on Animal Planet that I’ve gotten into recently is Pit Bulls & Parolees.  I really like that one.  I think pit bulls are misunderstood.  If you treat them kindly and train them properly, they really can end up being very sweet, loyal dogs.  Another reason I like the show is that it gives people who have been to prison a second chance.  Maybe I’m too sappy, but I honestly believe that there are some people who have made mistakes, but who now genuinely want to turn their lives around.  I honestly feel that they should be given that opportunity.

I think the cats have been happy to have us home, since they’ve been leaping onto the couch to watch TV with us.  Nettie has been sleeping in my lap.  At one point Michele was relaxing on the couch under the blanket, and, as can be seen below, Squeaky curled up on top of her head.  I think she was actually very comfortable there.

Michele and Squeaky
Michele and Squeaky

In the last few days, Michele has gotten a nostalgic craving for that late 1970s series The Gong Show, hosted by Chuck Barris.  She’s been watching all of these clips of it on YouTube.  I’ve never actually seen the original version of The Gong Show before.  I saw a few episodes of the 1980s revival, which never impressed me, so I couldn’t understand what the big deal was.  But Michele pretty much forced me to watch those clips of the original incarnation and, yeah, it is a million times better.  I have to agree with her, the people involved in making the show must have been on some serious drugs!  Of course, while we were browsing through all these old television clips, we happened to learn that a serial killer was once a contestant on The Dating Game.  Oh, wow, truth really is stranger than fiction.  I’m surprised that this never inspired an episode of Criminal Minds.

So now it’s New Years Eve.  I have no plans yet.  Since I quit drinking, it just feels really weird hanging out at bars or parties with people who are getting smashed.  A couple of nights ago, we were at The Cobra Club in Bushwick again, hanging out with some of Michele’s friends.  It was fun, yeah, but after a couple of hours I just started to get edgy, being around all that booze.  And, y’know, if you aren’t drinking, bars are kinda boring.  I don’t know, maybe I just overthink these things.  Anyway, I’m not sure what I’m going to end up doing tonight.  Perhaps I’ll hang out with Michele for a little while and then call it an early night, catch the Twilight Zone marathon or something.  We shall see.

In any case, I hope everyone has a wonderful 2013.  See you next year.

The Ink Master season two finale wrap-up

My girlfriend Michele and I watched the two-part second season finale of Ink Master on Spike this past Tuesday. Coming into the home stretch were the final four contestants: Steve Tefft, Sarah Miller, Katherine “Tatu Baby” Flores, and Sebastian Murphy. Michele and I were both of the opinion that the three who should be selected to go on to the live conclusion were Steve, Sarah, and Tatu Baby. Somehow, though, things did not turn out exactly that way.

Steve did a kick-ass tattoo of a muscular figure with a hammer & anvil which quite deservedly won best tattoo for the episode. Sarah tattooed a phoenix which, despite a few flaws, was very nice. The bottom two was, according to the judges, Tatu Baby and Sebastian. Tatu Baby did a dragon which was not especially great but, on the other hand, wasn’t bad either, at least in my opinion. Sebastian, however, did a very dark tattoo with some really flawed elements to its design. It was not good, not at all. When called to task for it, Sebastian seemed to blame everything on the fact that his human canvas had very dark skin. That’s nice, Sebastian, but you were the one who wanted to tattoo that particular person! Stop throwing around excuses.

In what was a really big upset, despite the fact that Sebastian had never won a single Elimination Tattoo challenge, and Tatu Baby had won several plus had a tattoo in this episode that was better, it was Sebastian who got the third spot on the live finale. Michele and I both cried foul. I immediately told her “You know the internet is going to explode now because of this.” And, indeed, I went right onto the Ink Master Facebook page, where dozens and dozens of people were posting angry comments about how Tatu Baby had been cheated.

Tatu Baby: At least she has her modeling career to fall back on.
Tatu Baby: At least she has her modeling career to fall back on.

The closing minutes of the first part of the finale revealed that the three finalists (Steve, Sarah, Sebastian) would be able to do a final tattoo of their choice, any subject matter allowed, on a human canvas. It would be a 24-hour piece, done in four separate six hour sessions. All season long, Steve has been showing that he’s a specialist at horror pieces. Sebastian must have guessed that Steve would be doing that, and decided to do a horror piece of his own. Unfortunately, the human canvas who Sebastian got was a woman who clearly had no interest in horror. She was a former dancer who liked ballet, and she asked Sebastian if he could incorporate that into his tattoo. He point blank refused, saying he was absolutely going to do a horror piece. I observed “Right now that woman must be wishing that Tatu Baby had been the finalist instead of Sebastian!”

Anyway, the second half was the live conclusion, broadcast at 10 PM from New York City (presumably the real NYC this time, and not Jersey City standing in for it). All of the eliminated contestants returned for the episode. We also heard from some of the past human canvases who were, shall we say, less than pleased with what they had gotten on the show. Dave Navarro announced that one of those unhappy customers would be receiving a cover-up from Tommy Helm on Tattoo Nightmares. I called it, I totally called it! I knew that sooner or later someone who had been given an awful piece on Ink Master would end up on Tattoo Nightmares.

(Since I first posted this about an hour ago, I see at least a couple of people found it with search engine terms such as “what ink master canvas got a cover up on tattoo nightmares?” The lucky human canvas who will be receiving a cover-up from Tommy Helm is the guy who got that really bad pin-up girl by Mark Matthews in episode six.  Seriously, who in their right mind tattoos with a broken thumb?!?)

Navarro also announced that there would be live voting online to select one eliminated contestant to return next season. Michele and I both spent the next 40 minutes going to the Spike website trying to vote. So must have half of America, because it was near-impossible to get the voting page to load. I think the site must have nearly crashed from all of the traffic. In any case, Tatu Baby won with 75 percent of the vote. At this point Michele declared that the judges’ decisions in the first half must have been rigged. She figured Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez selected Sebastian over Tatu Baby knowing people would be outraged and would subsequently vote to have her return. Why do that? Well, in addition to being a great artist, Tatu Baby is a really nice piece of eye candy, so if she returns for Season Three, she’ll definitely be bringing in the viewers. I’m just saying!

In any case, we finally got to view Steve, Sarah, and Sebastian’s 24 hour pieces. Steve did an awesome horror piece of a dark angel and a skull which can be seen below:

Steve Tefft's awesome winning tatto from Ink Master Season Two.
Steve Tefft’s awesome winning tatto from Ink Master Season Two.

Sarah did these two Norse-inspired pieces which were also very good. And Sebastian, well, he tattooed a giant piece of a demon clawing its way out of the flesh of his human canvas’ back. Oh dear. Don’t get me wrong. If that was your sort of thing, you would no doubt be very happy to get it. But it was sooooo obvious that the woman who was stuck with it had a totally different personality. I felt really sorry for that poor woman. Now she’s stuck with this honking big ugly monster tattooed on her. That’s going to require a gigantic cover-up by a very skilled artist if she wants to get rid of it.

The winner of the season was Steve. I felt that was very much deserved. Despite being something of a douchebag (admittedly, so were most of the other contestants) he was very good at what he did. Likewise, Sarah certainly did very nice work, and earned the second place slot. My only problem with her is that she was a bit on the, um, intense side… okay, yeah, she could get really frantic and crazy when things did not go her way! With her moods, I don’t know if I’d personally want to get a piece done by her. But, yeah, putting aside her semi-regular emotional meltdowns, she is a really good tattoo artist.

Sarah Miller: I'm not crazy, no siree!
Sarah Miller: I’m not crazy, no siree!

Now we just have to wait for Ink Master Season Three. Which means more Tatu Baby, more jacked-up tattoos, more contestants having verbal throw-downs with Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez, and more of Dave Navarro coming across as a wanker. Yeah, should be fun!

Separating the Ink Masters from the Stink Masters

I really, really try to avoid watching “reality television” because, let’s face it, Sturgeon’s Law is especially applicable to that segment of the airwaves, and a whopping 99.9% of it is total crap.  But somehow, against better judgment, I inevitably get sucked into watching episodes of such fare as Celebrity Rehab, Rock of Love or *shudder* Jersey Shore.  It’s the whole train wreck phenomenon… you just cannot look away from the blood & carnage.

Of course, every once in a while a reality TV show comes along that does have a modicum of intelligence and genuine entertainment value to it.  Ink Master on Spike is one of those, and I’ve been hooked on the show since its debut in January of this year.  A large part of the appeal for me is that I really love tattoos (I’ve got seven and counting) and I find the whole subculture surrounding getting inked to be fascinating.  The other major reason why Ink Master appeals to me is that to be on it requires genuine talent & artistic ability.  The contestants on it, despite their varying levels of douchebaggery, all are legitimately skilled in the art of tattooing.

Ink Master is hosted by Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro.  I’m not certain exactly what qualifies him to be presenting the show, much less serving as one of the three judges, other than he’s heavily inked.  But I suppose he brings the requisite “rock star” presence to the series.  The other two judges are Chris Nunez and Oliver Peck.  Both are apparently very accomplished tattoo artists.  Certainly the critiques and advice they offer the contestants seem to be intelligent and thoughtful, the result of years of experience in the field.  I have to tell you, though, when Navarro, Nunez, or Peck launches into a lecture about some aspect of illustration such as the use of shading, texture, or contrasting colors, my girlfriend, who is an artist, likes to comment “Wow, this is art school for dummies!”

I mentioned douchebaggery, didn’t I?  Well, there are some real characters who have competed on Ink Master.  Everyone appears to be a competitive egomaniac ready to leap at each other’s throats… perhaps at the producers’ suggestions, who knows?  Each season, you get at least one guy declaring “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win!”  This was actually somewhat palatable in Season One, because the guy making this proclamation, Shane O’Neill, had the talent to back it up, and indeed he ended up winning the competition.  This time around, you have someone like Kay Kutta doing the bragging, but he just doesn’t have the skills or experience to justify the bravado.

Chris Nunez, Dave Navarro and Oliver Peck from Ink Master
Chris Nunez, Dave Navarro and Oliver Peck, hosts of Ink Master

This week’s episode was Star Wars themed, with a group of “human canvases” getting tattoos of characters & imagery from the films.  That definitely interested me, big sci-fi geek that I am.  As I was watching it, I was thinking to myself that it was too bad that my friend Chris didn’t get on this episode, because he’s a huge Star Wars fan who already has at least a couple of really awesome tattoos from the movies.  Then, wouldn’t you know it, less than two minutes later, who should show up on the TV screen?  Yep, it was Chris.  For those who watched, he was the guy who got the Star Destroyer & Tie Fighters done on his back.  I’m glad he ended up with one of the better artists, Sebastian Murphy.  Despite the criticism offered up by the judges, I think Murphy did a fine job on a difficult, detailed subject, and Chris ended up with a nice tattoo.  Anyway, it was a good episode, although I think the winning tattoo should have been the Clone Trooper by Sarah Miller, and not the Yoda piece by Tatu Baby.

My girlfriend keeps pestering me to try and volunteer to become a human canvas on the next season of Ink Master, to which I invariably respond “Are you out of your #@%&ing mind?!?”  No thank you.  The next tattoo I get is going to be a subject matter that I choose, and it will be done by an artist who can take his or her time with it, who actually wants to work on the particular piece, and who is not racing against the clock to complete it.  Okay, I can understand the appeal this has for some people, in that you get a free tattoo and get to appear on television.  But for me this is the equivalent of tattoo Russian roulette, because the odds pretty good that you’re going to end up with a mediocre or, worse, just plain bad image stuck on your body for the rest of your life.  Knowing my luck, I’d end up going from Ink Master to Spike’s other tattoo reality show, Tattoo Nightmares, which spotlights artists who specialize in covering up really awful pieces!

White on the subject, I gotta admit, Tattoo Nightmares is another entertaining show.  One of the three artists showcased, Tommy Helm, came in second place in the first season of Ink Master, and is really good at what he does.  Having said that, it’s another series I’m perfectly content to sit back & watch.  I hope I never end up with a piece so awful that I’d require the services of Helm or his associates to do a cover-up.

Anyway, Ink Master is fun to watch.  Despite the often ridiculous personalities & behavior of some of the contestants, it is very interesting to see them attempt to produce tattoo masterpieces in a high pressure environment with the clock ticking, definitely not the ideal environment in which to ink anyone.  Given that, it’s a thrill to see some of the amazing pieces that come out of that.

Reflections on Criminal Minds

I’ve been a fan of the type of mystery stories commonly referred to as “police procedurals” since I was a teenager, reading Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.  In my college years and twenties, I was a huge fan of the television show Law & Order.  I watched CSI for a short time.  But within the last few years, I have really gotten into the series Criminal Minds, which is broadcast on CBS, as well as re-run in syndication.  With the Season Eight premier scheduled to air on September 26, I wanted to take a glance back at the show’s past.

Criminal Minds follows the adventures of an FBI division known as the Behavioral Analysis Unit, or BAU.  The agents of the BAU use a combination of psychology, forensics, and computers to track down an assortment of criminal “Unsubs” or unknown subjects.  The majority of the BAU’s targets are serial killers, although they have also tackled rapists, arsonists, mad bombers, kidnappers, religious cults, and terrorists.

What I find most interesting about the series are the characters.  The members of the BAU are all very well written parts, played by a group of talented actors.  There is a lot of real chemistry on screen, as we see this group of profilers working as a team to crack a case.  A large part of this is that the BAU has bonded into a surrogate family of sorts.  Dramatically, this makes a lot of sense.  The criminals they pursue, who are among the most depraved examples of humanity, often come from extremely dysfunctional, broken backgrounds, or they are sociopaths, individuals who are incapable of true emotional attachment & connections.  Given this, it makes sense that the BAU members would form a kind of family unit to hold themselves together and retain their sanity in the face of unremitting horrors.

If there is one character on Criminal Minds that I can identify with, it would have to be Spencer Reid, portrayed by Matthew Gray Gubler.  If I was a much, much, much smarter man, I could see myself as Reid, who possesses an uncanny encyclopedic knowledge, yet who is both extremely socially awkward and who is haunted by fears of mental illness.  Gubler really does a superb job making Reid a three-dimensional character.

I also love the character of Penelope Garcia, a former computer hacker who was recruited by the FBI to be the BAU’s resident tech whiz.  In a way, Garcia sometimes veers dangerously close to being a plot device, with her uncanny ability to near-instantly access any electronic information just in the nick of time.  But she’s saved for becoming a deus ex machina both by the writing and the acting.  Kirsten Vangsness makes her into a lively, sassy geek girl who is a mixture of attitude and innocence.  I was once talking over Criminal Minds with a friend who also watches the show, and she was not at all surprised that I like the character of Garcia, as she saw similarities between her and my girlfriend.  Had not noticed them before, but yeah, I guess she’s right about that.

The cast of Criminal Minds from Seasons Three to Six.

The original lead character on Criminal Minds during the show’s first two years was Jason Gideon, portrayed by Mandy Patankin (yep, Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride).  When we first meet Gideon in the pilot episode, he is returning the BAU after suffering from a work-related nervous breakdown.  After an intense manhunt for a mass murderer who had claimed over a hundred victims, Gideon finally realized he was once again suffering from burnout and abruptly quit the BAU.

His replacement could not be more different.  Whereas Gideon was cerebral and low-key, David Rossi, played by Joe Mantegna, could be described as something of a hot shot, career-driven superstar profiler.  One of the agents who helped establish the BAU, Rossi subsequently left the FBI for a time to write true crime books, becoming a bestselling author.  But eventually he came to have a crisis of conscience, realizing that his books were immortalizing the monsters that he had helped capture, while causing the victims to be forgotten.  Rossi returned to the BAU to tackle a twenty year old unsolved case that had haunted him, and stayed on in hopes of making amends for putting his ambition ahead of other considerations.

The head of the BAU is Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner, portrayed by Thomas Gibson.  An intense individual, Hotch spent many long hours on the job, much to the consternation of his wife Haley, who finally divorced him.  Tragically, Hotch became caught up in a game of cat & mouse with a serial killer who took on the alias of the Reaper, and Haley became one of his victims.  After killing the Reaper in a brutal hand-to-hand fight, Hotch was left to raise his young son Jack by himself.  Choosing to stay on with the BAU, Hotch juggles the demands of job and family, while trying to re-establish a personal life for himself in the wake of his tragic loss.

I would say that the majority of the episodes of Criminal Minds do adhere to a certain formula, in that a series of killings take place somewhere in the United States, and the BAU is called in.  While the team carries out their investigation, we see the parallel plotline of the killer at work, stalking his latest target.  It soon becomes a race against time, with the BAU attempting to identify and locate the Unsub before he can finish off his current victim.  What makes the show work, despite the repetition, is the aforementioned high quality of writing and acting.  In addition, there is the fascinating look at the BAU assembling psychological profiles of the criminals, methodically deducing through actions and evidence just what makes these twisted individuals tick.

Admittedly, there appears to be a certain amount of, shall we say, exaggeration for dramatic purposes.  The majority of episodes of Criminal Minds take place within a matter of days.  In real life, it might take the FBI or other law enforcement agencies weeks or months, perhaps even years, to crack a particular case.  Obviously events are truncated, otherwise Criminal Minds would be a very slow moving show.

Criminal Minds is often an extremely dark show.  And, certainly, I sometimes think the on-screen violence gets too intense.  So I would not recommend it for everyone.  But it is definitely a very well produced series, and I’m looking forward to its return to television later this month.